Turban Decay deals with images of Arabs in the cinema, as observed by Front Row Central staff writer and actual Arab Jordan Saïd. The column deals with stereotypes and changing perceptions both before and after 9/11.
If one film sums up American perceptions of Arabs (at least outside of terrorist stereotypes), Aladdin does. Its status as a big-budget Disney film grants it an instant spot in the public consciousness. All the Arabian Nights tropes that Americans know show up in this film: magic lamps with genies, princesses dressed like belly dancers, tamed tigers, magic carpets, angry warriors with noses shaped like fishhooks, and of course, Arabs who always want to kill each other with scimitars just because someone looked at them wrong.
Jack Shaheen wrote extensively on Aladdin in Reel Bad Arabs. He drew attention in particular to the contrast between the anglicized features of Aladdin and Jasmine as compared to the more angular, “Arab” features of Jafar. In fairness, this trend extends beyond Aladdin. Disney has drawn protagonists with scarce, rounded lines since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and antagonists with harsh, angular features since Cinderella (1950). Nevertheless, I feel inclined to take Shaheen’s side. Aladdin and Jasmine look like Aryans with heavy eyebrows, convex noses, and olive-tinted skin, the Sultan looks like a generic old man, and Genie clearly started as a caricature of Robin Williams. The “bad” characters and only the “bad” characters actually do look Semitic.
The perennial disregard-for-life Arab stereotype rears its ugly head from the outset. Literally less than a minute in, the frame tale narrator sings, “Where they cut off your ear / If they don’t like your face / It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.” (Disney later changed the former two lines to, “Where it’s flat and immense / And the heat is intense.”) Speaking of whom, the narrator—Robin Williams showing off his discursive comedy style—appears in the frame scene to set the mood.
The film largely establishes Agrabah—the film’s answer to the Middle East—as a lawless no-man’s-land where deceit and death lurk at every corner, which does a fine job setting the mood but a terrible job encouraging young viewers to feel safe around Arabs. Throughout the film, Aladdin finds himself under siege by stereotypical, burly, hook-nosed guards who brandish scimitars and sneer imprecations through missing teeth before repeatedly trying to murder him. At another point, a decidedly Semitic-looking grocer nearly cuts off our Aryan-looking Princess Jasmine’s hand.
Moreover, many of the instances of Islam appear in a negative context. Small-time cutpurse Azeem praises Allah as he prepares to rob a horde of treasure. The stereotypical guards invoke the Islamic tenet about amputating the hands of thieves. Only the doddering old sultan comes close to contradicting this… by invoking Allah’s name as an exclamation of surprise.
More than most filmmakers, Disney embody that writers’ aphorism: “when you steal, steal from the best.” The writers owe a massive debt to the creators of the first two Thief of Bagdad films. This film uses the basic plot of the first and character names and roles of the second. Even a number of little moments carry over from these films: Aladdin’s dip in deep water, the sultan’s flight in the sky, and a brief scene in the Far East.
For a Disney Princess, Jasmine seems refreshingly opinionated, smart, and able. Far from the mute Arab women of so many other films, Jasmine fights her role in life and the desire of men to make all her decisions with everything she has. She refuses to marry a man who can’t respect her enough to believe in her free will. Unfortunately, she ultimately ends up in the same old damsel-in-distress routine.
Aladdin works well as an animated film. The characters all have lively, fluid animation. This film serves as an excellent cross-section of how Disney rose to become kings of theatrical animation, even after their long lull following Walt’s passing. The writers keep the characterization lively by pairing each major character with a sidekick: Aladdin & Abu; Jasmine & Rajah; Genie & Carpet; Jafar & Iago… Of all the characters, in some ways, the magic carpet stands out most of all. For a mute quadrilateral, animator Randy Cartwright imbues the character with astounding fluidity.
Of course, Robin Williams’ Genie serves as the film’s wacky breakout character. His all-over-the-place comedy delivers most of the film’s overt laughs. I don’t find his humor quite as funny as I did in childhood, but he absolutely meets the demands of the role.
My mild irritation with the depiction of Arabs notwithstanding, Aladdin still holds up. The good outweighs the bad by a country mile. The film has excellent music and dynamic animation. The characters succeed by their wits and intelligence, and the title character’s good heart makes him very easy to identify with. I, for one, don’t regret the many fond memories I have of watching this film as a youngster.
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